The first ever sentence that I learned in Tausug was “Kalasahan ta kaw.” My cousin Alwida was staying with my mother and I for the summer, and my father was due to visit me in the coming months. I wanted to learn to greet him in his first language, to express my love and admiration for a man who, even though I truly loved him, I had never fully gotten to know.
I was eleven years old, and this was the first time Tausug was ever spoken in my home by someone other than my Dad. My relationship with him mirrors the relationship I have had with Islam – one of wonder, of awe, and yet, I have always been hesitant to set my foot through that door. Although I was raised in Catholic institutions and traditions, I was always regarded as “half-Muslim.” In short, I was treated as an ‘other’ even in my own community.
“You are not half of anything, anak.” My mother would chide. “You are not half this, or half that. You are both Moro and Christian, and you should never forget it.”
What would we do without the wisdom of mothers? For the longest time, she was the only person in my life who actively encouraged my getting to know Islam. She particularly reminds me of Fatima Zahra, the most blessed of women, and the originator of the name my mother chose for herself when she married my father. It was why she invited my cousin Alwida that summer – although my mother was not raised in that religion, she knew the importance of my being aware of it.
It is with those experiences that led me to Al Qalam. I have come a long way from where I was at eleven, the meek, shy, and socially anxious child that I was. Most of my colleagues cannot imagine it, and I cannot blame them.
And yet, when I was asked to present and speak on the concept of #MPower, even as I helped to develop it, I was hesitant. I am a writer at heart, and my speaking voice annoys most people. How were our participants going to receive that message? It was important to ground them in something that they can relate to. Would I be able to connect to them?
I felt I could not speak for Islam, even though it is even more dear to my heart now that my father has since passed on, and is now with my mother in Jannah. The only words that I could share to these participants, all rosy-cheeked and eager smiles, were the fact that, once upon a time, I was also looking for my own identity.
But my colleagues had the utmost confidence in me, and so I swallowed my apprehension and did what I did best: tell stories. And, of these stories, I chose to tell my own in the hope that it translated well to others. I told them of the long road that came with my being empowered, the importance of reaching out and opening up to others. Of pain, and sorrow, and success, and gaining the strength to take back one’s own narratives.
Muslims are not the violent, savage, barbaric heathens as portrayed in the media. Muslims are my father, my Inah, my Apah Masir, my aunts and cousins and their wives and their children. They are leaders, artists, intellectuals, ordinary people with hopes and fears just like everyone else. But, we need to call for a collective message, one of peace and community and change. A closed fist is more powerful than five raised fingers.
What I did not expect, also, is the rush of emotion and empathy that happened in me when I shared my story. As I have wanted to empower them, they have empowered me, as well. It made me embrace the young Tausug woman writer that I am, and that I proud of my family and my heritage.
With sharing one’s story, the empowerment that comes from feeling like someone is listening is critical. Our participants are brilliant, creative, idealistic young leaders. They all have their own stories and paths to take. I am ecstatic at the thought of being able to listen and share these experiences with other people, and it is a legacy that the Salaam Regional Workshops hopes to inculcate in others.
Please also share your stories under the banner of #SalaamRegionalWorkshop and #MPower; we at Al Qalam and Salaam Movement would be very glad to hear them. That way, we can change our narrative, one story at a time.
I am Kristelle Alina Rizardo Omar, I am Tausug, I am a Moro woman, and I choose to #MPower.
Magsukul tuud, and kalasahan ta kaw!
Kristelle Alina Rizardo is the communications specialist of the Al Qalam Institute of the Ateneo de Davao University.